Nature versus nurture; it's a debate that has conquered philosophy, art and science for centuries. It's also the existential foundation of Zachary Wigon's ('The Heart Machine') erotic thriller, 'Sanctuary'. Adapted from a 2007 one-act play written by the film's screenwriter Micah Bloomberg (TV's 'Homecoming'), 'Sanctuary' might appear brief on the surface given its single-room, two-actor setup. But within the confines of the hotel suite it takes place in lives an intricate and charming portrait of two souls connected deeper than either one can imagine.
A knock on hotel empire heir Hal's (Christopher Abbott, 'On the Count of Three') suite door is where our story begins. Blonde, petite, and in a green velvet pantsuit, Rebecca (Margaret Qualley, 'Stars at Noon') is an instant attention magnet. At first, it appears that the nature of their meeting is one of business, as she begins to ask Hal a series of questions on behalf of her law firm to begin his takeover of the empire. The façade of the nature of their meeting soon begins to slip; Rebecca is clearly wearing a wig, and the increasingly invasive nature of her questions is far from what one would anticipate from a law firm. Turns out, Rebecca is Hal's long-time dominatrix and everything we have so far seen is part of Hal's scripted humiliation fantasy. This is the audience's first signal that nothing they will be seeing over the next 96 minutes is truly as it seems. Over the course of one evening, the role play between Hal and Rebecca – and Hal's attempt to fire her so he can become a CEO with an unblemished reputation – blurs the reality of their relationship and who is actually the one in power. Is it the naturally domineering Rebecca, or is her control simply a learned talent to make ends meet? Is it Hal in his ability to buy – and bribe – anyone he wants, or is he actually more calculated than his humiliation kink would suggest?
Despite the theatrical nature of the source material and the inadvertent inertia that often comes with their film adaptations, cinematographer Ludovica Isidori ('Test Pattern') is dynamic with the camera and its movements. It helps to keep the film pulsing forward, reminding the audience to stay on their toes. A pivotal, prominent shot of Hal's script for the evening shows us that up to this point, even the "off-script moments" have actually been planned, yet another reminder to second-guess the nature of Rebecca and Hal's interactions and their relationship. Thankfully, Wigon's craft and control over his film is both clever and ever-present. The emotional whiplash Hal and Rebecca endure through their power struggle (did you really think Rebecca would let herself be fired without a contingency plan?) might come off as a mess in lesser hands, but Wigon handles it all with a self-assuredness that is thrilling to watch. It's also in the trust of his control that Abbott and Qualley are able to swing for the fences in their performances. Qualley, in particular, turns in the best performance of her career here. Despite the outrageous threats Rebecca comes out with to keep her place in Hal's life, there's never a single moment where one might consider that she is actually bluffing, and it's both terrifying and magnetising to watch. She insists that he needs her; their relationship has seemingly turned him into the man he is, one ready and ballsy enough to take over the family's prestigious company, and surely she should be rewarded for that.
The film's final moments ask its audience to suspend their disbelief just a bit much with the neatness of its resolution, but it also acts to surprise the audience in how the characters also surprise themselves. Will Rebecca and Hal follow through, or is it another farce? Have they orchestrated their feelings for one another for mutual benefit, or have years of intimate knowledge of each other turned into true love? The question mark over this is 'Sanctuary's' magic touch, assuring it'll tantalise its audiences – and probe them to consider what they themselves want – long after the credits roll.